Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Review of Windhaven by George R.R.Martin and Lisa Tuttle

I would guess there are numerous people today who know George R.R. Martin for nothing but A Game of Thrones. Extremely popular on television and in print, it's fair to say Martin can retire without financial concerns. But decades ago when Martin was cutting his teeth in the 70s, he was writing solid fiction too, particularly short fiction. Working with then-wife Lisa Tuttle, together the pair co-authored a series of novellas that were put together, along with a prologue and epilogue to bind the whole, in the novel Windhaven (1981).

A phased biography, each of the three novellas tells of a period in the life of the woman Maris on the alien planet Windhaven. Humanity having crash landed but survived on the archipelagic planet, broken bits of the ship are re-used to construct gliders that people in turn use to fly messages back and forth between the disparate islands. The first novella tells of Maris in passionate, idealistic youth, fighting for something she believes in. The second finds her in middle age, still growing, however, now learning to deal with the past while accommodating the needs of herself and others in the present. And the third sees her in late middle-age, still learning, this time dealing with the cards of age the house dealer gives us all, inevitably.

So while Martin is known these days as the prime storyteller behind the epic fantasy A Song of Ice and Fire, he has always been a storyteller. Possessing the knack to wander unpredictably between the familiar and unfamiliar with characters shaded gray, Windhaven is a good example. While Maris might possess the characteristics of what one might call 'heroic' or 'good', she is far from perfect or faultless, her inner humanity coming to the surface in numerous scenarios. The first novella finds her confronting unjust aspects of her external world, the second unbalanced aspects of her internal world, and the third a combination of both, making for a relatable character, even if some of the story elements are a little over the top.

If Maris is taken as a strong female lead with full agency (which she is), then Windhaven fits very nicely in the modern meta. For potential readers for whom that raises a red flag (no metaphor intended :), Martin and Tuttle blend this material into the story. Maris never bludgeons the reader over the head with her ‘strong female character’. She acts naturally, defending her rights as an individual (read: not woman, rather person), all the while making decisions that suit her needs as an individual, rather than foremost as subject to order, culture, or tradition.
In the end, Windhaven reads like a combination of Jack Vance's Blue World and Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea. The storytelling is similar to the former, while theme is similar in the latter—setting something binding them all. Overall, it's nice synergy that feels like classic myth, yet has a number of elements which make it fresh and “science fictional”. It also feels very American. Neither a bad or good thing, there is a strong focus on individual's freedom, fairness and equality, and a practical rationality that attempts to keep things democratic yet competitive. Yes, American. But regardless where the reader sits in the political arena, there is enough good storytelling. The first novella hits home the political points hardest, while the second novella, arguably the best in the book, is its most personal yet most competitive. And the third novella, while having the best of intentions, crumbles upon its climax, things falling into place a little too easily even as Maris nicely settles into her sunset.

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